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Monday, 12 February, 2001, 17:35 GMT
Row over 'Book of Life'
Graphic BBC
A row has broken out between the two groups of scientists who have worked out the sequence of the human genetic code.

Two rival groups are deciphering the human genome: an international public consortium and a private effort led by gene pioneer Dr Craig Venter, of Celera Genomics.


To have a bizarre pay-to-view mechanism, almost like buying digital TV to view the World Cup, is not right for the human genome

Dr Mike Dexter
The public team has accused Celera of producing an inferior product and holding back science by imposing commercial restrictions on its data.

But Dr Venter claims the criticisms come from a minority of researchers, who wanted to have the human genome all to themselves, and that his research is faster, cheaper and more accurate.

Genome unveiled

The attack on Celera came as the Human Genome Project published a series of papers in the scientific journal Nature.

At a London press conference, the public scientists claimed Celera's "Book of Life" relied heavily on publicly-available data and could not have been written without it.

Sir John Sulston, former director of the Sanger Centre in Cambridgeshire, said: "Two years ago Celera said its process would magically solve everything and the public domain should go away.

"Celera has repeatedly said we have wasted research money in doing what we have done with our American collaborators. We did it because we believed that probably the claim that the Celera method would work on its own was false.

"What we can say today is that we were right. The claim that this would work on its own is not correct."

'Pay-to-view'

Dr Mike Dexter, director of the Wellcome Trust which funds the Sanger Centre, joined Sir John in attacking Dr Venter's attempts to capitalise on the human genome.

He told a press conference at the Wellcome Trust's head office in London: "To have a bizarre pay-to-view mechanism, almost like buying digital TV to view the World Cup, is not right for the human genome."

Celera is publishing its work at the same time in the journal Science. Although scientists can freely access Celera data, they are not allowed to redistribute it or use the information for commercial purposes.

Sir John said these restrictions would severely inhibit research around the world into the functions of human genes, which ultimately could lead to a wealth of new treatments for disease.

The work is part of international efforts over the past 10 years to unravel the entire genetic make-up of a human being.

Click here to see a breakdown of the human genome

The scientists have found that human beings have far fewer genes than they thought, about 30,000, perhaps just a few hundred more than a mouse.

But decades of work await researchers as they try to unravel the results of the Human Genome Project.

Understanding how to fix faulty genes is expected to lead to new treatments and ultimately cures for a vast range of conditions from heart disease and cancer to some types of depression and addiction.

The Sanger Centre BBC
The Sanger Centre sequenced a third of the genome
"For most common diseases like diabetes and common forms of cancers and psychiatric diseases, genes explain in the order of half the variations between people," said Dr David Altshuler, a geneticist at the Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research in the US.

"If we can understand the half that is in our genes, which is ultimately going to boil down to the differences in our genetic codes, we would know a lot that we don't know today."

But the scientists warn that along with great promise, genetic advances also have serious legal, ethical and social implications. They caution that understanding and wisdom will be needed to ensure that the benefits are properly used.

"We need to start talking with our governments and our legislators about what kind of protection, what kind of laws need to be written to ensure that this information is available to patients to benefit them but is not used to discriminate," said Dr Altshuler.

The genome research represents the first, major, detailed analysis of the "rough draft" or "first assembly" of the human code announced last June by US President Bill Clinton and UK Prime Minister Tony Blair.

By "rough draft", scientists mean they have read virtually all the code. But there remain a number of as yet unsequenced regions of the genome, and not all the code that has been obtained has been "proofed" to a high degree of accuracy.

(click here to return)

Human chromosomes BBC
About 30,000 genes are written in our DNA, which is wound up into 46 chromosomes

 WATCH/LISTEN
 ON THIS STORY
The BBC's Fergus Walsh
"Scientists are confidently predicting a revolution in healthcare"
Dr Craig Venter, head of Celera Genomics
"It was full of surprises"
Sir John Sulston, leading genome researcher
"We must deal with our new knowledge sensibly"
Michael Hunkapiller, pres. of Applied Bio Systems
"It's important... to have the proper kind of regulation in place"

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11 Feb 01 | Science/Nature
08 Dec 00 | Science/Nature
11 Feb 01 | Science/Nature
06 Oct 00 | Science/Nature
05 Jan 01 | Science/Nature
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